By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The first person we see in Contemporary Theatre of Dallas'explosively funny production of Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest is Carnelle, the leading character played by Jennifer Knight, practicing her patriotic tap routine for a Fourth of July beauty and talent pageant she desperately wants to win. "Boom!" she bellows, waving wooden spoons in the air (as stand-ins for blazing sparklers). She kicks her heels toward the heavens. "Boom, BOOM!"
She's 100 pounds of TNT packed into a purple leotard. Carnelle is not really all that talented. Not a true beauty, either. But she's deadly serious about winning the crown, believing it might help "our little carnation," as her snooty older sister calls her, finally live down that other title, Miss Hot Tamale. That one was bestowed by boys in town whose wicks she lit in a spree of bad behavior that has left her angry, ashamed and feverish from a red-hot case of the clap.
This girl yearns to blow up big for once in her life and then blow town for good "in a crimson blaze of glory." Carnelle is a spitfire of sparkles and spunk. Orphaned at 8 and raised by an aunt and uncle who've both recently died, she lives in a knickknack-strewn Mississippi house about to be sold out from under her by cousin Delmount (John Venable). He wanders onto the scene having been released from the nervous hospital after a period of enforced confinement due to his tendency to stalk. Delmount's sister Elain (Sue Loncar) shows up too, having ditched her wealthy but dull husband and the two sons she's never much cared for. Elain's a former Miss Firecracker herself, invited back for the festivities to deliver a speech on "My Life as a Beauty." If she can make it through that, she plans to throw herself full-throttle into a midlife crisis.
Miss Firecracker, Henley's much funnier 1984 follow-up to Crimes of the Heart, bursts with likable kooks. A simple-minded seamstress named Popeye (Jenny Thurman) specializes in whipping up costumes for bullfrogs. The romantic hero (Scott Latham) is a carnival balloon man wracked with tuberculosis. There's talk of midget weddings, dogs that eat lemons and an old lady who sprouts black hair after a monkey gland transplant.
Oddball though they are, these folks somehow seem familiar to those of us raised in the land of grits and gravy. Tennessee Williams wrote of depraved Dixieland grotesques. Henley's Southern families ring a little truer. We all have colorful country cousins like Carnelle and Popeye clinging to our family trees and a lemon-eating dog or two peeing on the bark. A little Miss Firecracker lurks inside almost every Southern girl.
Clearly Beth Henley loves the Carnelles and Elains of small-town Mississippi, lonely women who realize almost too late that their unfulfilled dreams are basically the wrong dreams. Henley's plots often are about letting go of old hurts. In the wrong hands, her eccentric, melancholy characters could be played as caricatures.
CTD's production succeeds by not making fun of Carnelle and her family, while at the same time making it exceedingly fun to watch them, especially when they're upset. Somebody's always on the verge of tears in this play, but director Susan Sargeant, not a name usually associated with staging comedies, keeps it out of the slough of despond by amping up the energy and maintaining a frantic, madcap pace. Through two acts, Carnelle and the other characters shriek, jump, twist, twirl, run, weep, tap-dance, whistle, get drunk, get angry and, at the end, get exactly what they wanted in the first place. That is, to be loved and not alone anymore.
That doesn't mean the right girl wins the pageant. That would be too easy. But it does mean the right things happen just at the moments they should. The play's ending is a sweet crowd-pleaser.
At CTD they like producing middle-of-the-road fare featuring lots of parts for the ladies, including the occasional leading role for company founder Sue Loncar. Sometimes that's good news, sometimes not. This time around, we find Loncar giving her best performance ever on her home stage. She's looser, wackier, more willing to make a big, silly fool of herself as a faded beauty whose only regret at walking out on her rich husband is "we had such beautiful clocks."
Loncar's not the only actor doing exemplary work in Firecracker. Jennifer Knight, hair dyed paprika red for the part of Carnelle, gives a fierce, fiery performance as the girl fighting to reclaim her independence on Independence Day. We hope against hope that even in a ripped red satin ballgown, her Carnelle will triumph over the other four Firecracker finalists.
As seamstress Popeye, Thurman finds a way to come off both naïve and wise. It's strong work in a rare non-singing role for this actress. Scene by scene, she gets softer and prettier, even in the baggiest dresses ever to hit a stage (those bullfrogs have better wardrobes). As Tessy, the martinet pageant coordinator who has her beady eyes set for Delmount, wiry Trista Wyly, seen so often overacting to great effect in Pocket Sandwich Theatre's popcorn melodramas, is a comedic gem.